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The ‘sensational’ tot: Recognizing—and dealing with—Sensory Processing Disorder

Envision two unique babies.

Benjy has been on the go since Day 1.Constantly active, frequently fretful, easily startled, and a fitful sleeper, he sure keeps his parents on their toes. Speaking of toes, he skipped crawling and walked on tiptoes at nine months! Mom and Dad are exhausted—but that’s just how it is with an infant, they guess.

Valerie’s parents appreciate her peaceful nature. She goes to anyone, naps often, sleeps all night, and is content being moved from car to grocery cart to stroller to house, strapped in her baby seat. Her parents notice that she’s uninterested in watching it snow or grasping a rattle, but she does seem entranced with the laptop’s screensaver beside her on the kitchen counter.

Two very different tots—one underlying disorder.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the inefficient processing of messages from a person’s body or environment received through the senses.

Children with SPD may be over-responsive to certain sensations, such as sudden touch or movement.  However, some may be under-responsive, not noticing that the door slammed or the hammock is swaying.

Some tots with SPD may be cravers, seeking loud noises, flickering lights, and vigorous movement.

Others may misjudge differences among sensations—are they moving up or down, forward or backward? Is the water hot or cold?

Many with SPD are unusually clumsy, bumping into furniture, stumbling, and struggling to catch a beach ball or alternate feet to climb stairs.

Rather than growing out of it completely, children with severe SPD usually grow into it as they develop, sticking to regular routines and familiar environments that help them feel safe and comfortable.

SPD is not a learning disability, but it can lead to academic and social problems, as a child may be inclined to avoid ordinary childhood experiences that are distressing, such as messy art and science projects, circle games with other children, new foods, and other sensory stimuli.

Here are a few of the common signs of Sensory Processing Disorder in children. If your child shows one or two of these behaviors, not to worry! Therapists typically only diagnose SPD when an individual’s symptoms are severe enough to negatively impact everyday life.

Sensory over-responsivity

•   Resists being touched or held

•   Is distressed by baths, hairbrushes, and messy hands or face

•   Cannot tolerate textures of most clothing or sheets

•   Is a picky eater

•   Keeps hands fisted and won’t put bare feet on the ground

•   Covers eyes or ears frequently

•   Is apprehensive of sudden movement, playground equipment, car rides, or elevators

Sensory under-responsivity

•   Seems oblivious to irritating touch sensations like itchy fabric

•   Is unbothered by inoculations or bruises

•   Ignores loud noises

•   Does not notice when name is called

•   Does not notice when s/he is falling

Sensory craving

•   Touches everything

•   Bumps and crashes, seeking deep pressure into skin and muscles

•   Seeks intense movement, constantly rocking, swinging, jiggling, or climbing

•   Enjoys shaking and nodding head, twirling, or being upside down

•   Sniffs objects and people

•   Puts inedible objects in mouth after 2 years of age

•   Speaks in booming voice

Inefficient sensory discrimination

•   Misjudges distance to a ledge or to moving objects such as kids swinging

•   Has difficulty seeing differences in faces, pictures, and letters such as “b” and “d”

•   Has difficulty hearing differences in voices, tunes, and sounds such as “g” and “k”

•   Gets confused when orienting limbs to get dressed

•   Can’t tell if milk has soured or food is sufficiently chewed

Inefficient sensory-based motor skills

•   Has loose or “floppy” muscle tone

•   Trips “on air” (i.e., without an apparent obstacle)

•   Has difficulty using both sides of the body together to clap or read

•   Has difficulty thinking up, planning, and carrying out novel and complex actions, such as negotiating an unfamiliar obstacle course

•   Shows reduced fine-motor skills for drawing, writing, or articulating words

•   Shows reduced gross-motor skills for crawling, running, or climbing

If you think your child may be showing signs of Sensory Processing Disorder, chat with your pediatrician or ask for a referral to a pediatric occupational therapist. If you think something is amiss with your child’s development, listen to your motherly instinct! No one knows your tot like you do.

Fortunately, SPD is treatable, especially when children are young and their brains are malleable.

Looking for a few activities to introduce sensory-motor experiences and enhance your child’s developmental skills at home?

Try these hands-on, body-on activities with your little one!

• Circle games (e.g., Hokey Pokey or Duck, Duck, Goose)

• Resistive activities (Tug-o-War or gentle roughhousing)

• Heavy work activities (carrying bags of potatoes and buckets of water, digging, or pushing a stroller)

• Follow-the-leader

• Stretching activities (crouching like a seed and gradually “growing”)

• Playing in tubs filled with water, sand, beans, rice, mud, shaving cream, or other ingredients pleasing to the touch

Whether your child is diagnosed with SPD, or simply needs a little extra time to develop basic sensory-motor skills, fear not, mama! Now that you know the signs of SPD, you can stop worrying so much and seek help if necessary. In the meantime, have fun with your child, go outdoors daily, and join the ranks of parents everywhere raising “sensational” kids.

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